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British POWs and the Prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp

The British prisoners of war interned in the E715 POW camp in Auschwitz encountered the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp prisoners at the I.G. Farben construction site. Both the testimony of former British POWs at war trials and the accounts of surviving inmates attest to the impressions made by these encounters.


Most British POWs were shocked by their first sight of the concentration camp prisoners at the construction site and the prevailing brutality of the Meister, Kapos, and SS there; on a daily basis, they saw inmates lose their lives at the construction site. That repeatedly led the British prisoners of war into clashes with I.G. Farben employees and the SS. Officially, contact of any kind with the prisoners was forbidden to the British POWs, but they tried nonetheless to help by giving them moral support in the form of words of encouragement and supplying them with food and clothing.


Owing to the Red Cross food parcels allowed them under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the British prisoners of war were relatively well provided with food. Thus they could forego the soup they received at the construction site and give it to the concentration camp inmates. Often they left the soup at prearranged spots, to escape the notice of the Meister, Kapos, and SS. Such attention inevitably would have resulted in punishment of the prisoner and in wanton spillage of the soup. Some inmates, including Norbert Wollheim, were able to develop especially good contacts with the British POWs, so that they were supported with donations of discarded clothing, or could get letters sent to the outside world through the British prisoners. In fall 1944, however, there were 17 prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp for every one British POW in E715, so that it was impossible for the British to help everyone.


There are scattered reports of anti-Semitic attitudes on the part of a few British POWs, but the majority of the prisoners of war appear to have felt chiefly “pity and shame”[1] at the sight of the concentration camp prisoners, and an obligation to help the inmates as much as possible. This assistance also was interpreted as active resistance to the German enemy.


The British POWs realized very quickly what fate lay in store for the concentration camp inmates in Auschwitz. After mid-1944 they were housed in Camp VI, directly next to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, and they could see the happenings there, such as executions and suicides, through the fence. In addition, they marched past Monowitz on their way to the construction site. At the construction site—and also from the smell in the air—it was clear to everyone that the prisoners who were no longer “fit for work” were sent to the gas chamber in Birkenau. Several British POWs reported later that I.G. Farben employees, in their hearing, had endorsed the murder of the Jewish prisoners.


There are a few reports that British POWs helped inmates escape. Charles Joseph Coward and Yitzhak Persky, for example, say that they bought corpses at the construction site from a German, hid them along the road, and switched them with prisoners whom they instructed in advance to leave the column of inmates at a certain spot. Then, they said, the escapees were provided with clothes and food for the journey ahead; however, thus far no survivor has reported that he escaped in this way. While searching for a British Navy doctor, Karel Sperber, whom the German authorities had placed in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp because he was a Jew, Coward even spent one night in Monowitz, after switching clothes with a prisoner. This night left a deep impression in his memory, but he did not succeed in finding Sperber among the thousands of inmates.

(MN; transl. KL)


Affidavits and hearings of former British Prisoners of War at the Subsequent Nuremberg Trial Case VI.



White, Joseph Robert: “IG Auschwitz: The Primacy of Racial Politics.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, NE, 2000.

White, Joseph Robert: “‘Even in Auschwitz…Humanity Could Prevail’: British POWs and Jewish Concentration-Camp Inmates at IG Auschwitz, 1943–1945.” In: Holocaust and Genocide Studies 15 (2001), No. 2, pp. 266–295.

White, Joseph Robert: “The British Connection to Auschwitz: Work Camp E715 and the IG Farben Chemical Plant, 1943–1945.” Last altered on February 25, 2008, (accessed on March 18, 2008).

[1] Joseph Robert White: “IG Auschwitz: The Primacy of Racial Politics” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, NE, 2000), p. 256.